Facing Eternity Alone : Ernest Hemingway, Man and Writer, Is a Study in Contradictions

Article excerpt

Philip Gerard is the author of three novels and two books of nonfiction. His newest book, Writing the Big Book: Mastering Great Ideas, Public Subjects, and Universal Themes, will be published by Story Press this fall. He teaches in the MFA program at University of North Carolina-Wilmington.

" He was a genius, that uneasy word, not so much in what he wrote (speaking as an uncertain critic) as in how he wrote; he liberated our written language. All writers, after him, owe Hemingway a debt for their freedom whether the debt is acknowledged or not."

----Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent and Hemingway's third wife, in the Paris Review

The voice on the audiotape is a sharp, low tenor, oddly inflected, with a broad trace of midwestern vowels--not the resonant baritone you'd expect from such a robust man, from the large chest, the strong, wide, familiar, bearded face. It doesn't trust the microphone, sounds rehearsed and formal, declaiming rather than talking in the rhythm of natural conversation. It speaks across the years above a scratchy bed of white noise, poignantly, powerfully, the voice of the most famous American writer of the twentieth century--or of any century: Ernest Hemingway.

He's giving his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1954 for a little novel called The Old Man and the Sea, which had won the Pulitzer Prize the previous year:

"Writing at its best is a lonely life. Organizations for the writer palliate the writer's loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone, and if he is a good enough writer, he must face eternity or the lack of it each day." He bites off the two syllables of the word writer as if it were an odd foreign term for a strange profession.

The speech is one of only a handful of recordings of his voice--and only the second speech he ever gave--remarkable for a man who spent most of his career as a world-renowned celebrity in newsreels and on magazine covers, whose circle of intimate friends included Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner, and a host of other glamorous people. In 1937, on his one other occasion of public speaking, he addressed the communist-led Second American Writers' Congress, meeting in Carnegie Hall, to enlist support in the fight against Franco's fascism. He was visiting New York between stints as the most famous war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War.

The Nobel address is short, barely two minutes long. Hemingway delivered it not in Stockholm but over the radio from Havana, Cuba, where he had been living for some sixteen years. He was still recuperating from severe injuries suffered in two back-to-back plane crashes on safari in Africa some nine months before, including a ruptured liver, spleen, and kidney; temporary blindness in his weak left eye; a crushed vertebra; a severe concussion; and first-degree burns on his head, arms, and face. So the American ambassador, John Cabot, read it to the Swedish Academy.

The Swedish ambassador called at Hemingway's comfortable home outside Havana, the Finca Vig'a, to present the medal and prize citation in person. There are at least two published photographs of the occasion. In one, Hemingway--standing before a tall shelf of books, looking very serious and writerly in his tweed jacket, vest, and tie--studies the citation seriously as his

dignified visitor looks on. In the other, more spontaneous photo, Hemingway clasps the ambassador's hand in apparent gratitude; the ambassador is smiling broadly in profile, and Hemingway is grinning boyishly, exuberantly, squinting his eyes and flashing his white square teeth like Teddy Roosevelt.

That grin captures what it must have meant to him to win the most coveted literary prize in the world. After nearly three decades of best-selling celebrity and a dozen books, Hemingway was finally canonized. …